Mike Caro poker word is Unequal

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.

Well, it finally happened. My voice gave out. I’m sitting in New Orleans, waiting to play in World Series of Poker Circuit tournament at Harrah’s, and I can’t talk. I’m sick. Coughing. Communicating in squeaks and whispers. Poor, Mad Genius. How will he play his best game without talking opponents into calling? Results at eleven.

Anyway, I put aside my misery long enough to find this lecture from four years ago or so. You’ll see phrases repeated and semi-strange wording, which is the way I talk. But I think it’s an important topic for this column, so I hope you like it. Here goes…

Not all hold ’em pairs are created equal

In limit hold ’em, much of the time I know exactly what to do as soon as I watch my opponents experience the flop and gauge their reactions to it. I can do the same in no-limit games, but with slightly less confidence. And then I look at my own hand and realize, hey, I made top pair. Just between us, every once in a while deciding whether to bet or check when I flop top pair in hold ’em just about drives me crazy.

When this happens, I’m no different than you are. I’m betting you sit out a few hands and go find a cricket and stomp on it to ease your frustration. Who doesn’t? We’ve all done it. And that’s sad, because afterwards we feel bad about the crickets. I mean, their little cricket lives are all they had, right? Without those lives they’re lonely and desolate and dead. And it wasn’t their fault that we couldn’t figure out whether to check or bet on the flop. You know what I’m saying?

Where was I? I remember – we’re talking about hold ’em here. We’re talking about flopping top pair and not knowing what to do? There are lots of things that help determine whether we should bet or check in that situation, and I’m going to talk about just one important thing today.

What does “top pair” mean?

How many times have you heard a hold ’em player tell you a poker story that contained the words, “I flopped top pair”? I flopped top pair? What does that mean, exactly? Listen to me. Top pair is not a major category of happenings. It covers too much territory. On the flop, all top pair are not created equal.

For instance, if you hold seven-six of hearts and the flop is seven of spades, four of clubs, deuce of hearts, you have top pair, right? A pair of sevens with a six kicker. And if you hold ace of clubs, king of spades and the flop is king of diamonds, jack of clubs, three of diamonds, that’s top pair, right – a pair of aces with a king kicker? And if you hold jack of diamonds, ten of spades and the flop is jack of clubs, four of hearts, three of hearts, that’s top pair.

Two big factors

But each of these hands is completely different. What you need to know is that, among many factors, the two main ones that determine how powerful your “top pair” is are:

  1. How high is your kicker; and
  2. How high is the rank of the top pair.

And, of course, additionally you need to factor in the likelihood of straights and flushes.

Listen closely. In most situations, assuming there were no double raises before the flop, if you flop a medium or a small ranking top pair without a quality kicker and are first to act, you might be tempted to check for deception, but don’t check. You’re supposed to bet. That’s important and I’ll repeat it. When you flop a medium or a small top pair without a big kicker, usually because you got to see the flop cheaply in one of the blinds, you should almost never check for deception. You should bet that top small pair and small kicker.

This is true against a single opponent, against a few opponents, and often even against many opponents. The reason you bet is that you’re especially vulnerable and this is one situation where driving out higher cards can definitely save the pot for you. Sure, many players will call with just two high overcards, but it this situation, many overcards will not be all that high – just higher than your pair or kicker. For instance, someone with a jack-10, when you have that top pair of sevens and a six kicker, is very likely to fold.

By getting opponents to fold, you diminish the chance that one of the next two cards will match any of the remaining ranks held by opponents. So, betting is usually the stronger strategy. Checking and giving an opponent a free card isn’t.

An exception to betting

But there’s one situation in which I will often check even with a small pair and a small kicker, and so should you. That’s when I’m against multiple opponents and the one closest to my right, the one last to act, is the most aggressive and the most likely to bet. Then I’ll often gamble that the action will be checked to that final aggressive player, that he’ll bet and that I can then raise, chasing away the others and taking my chances with the lone aggressor.

When I flop a big top pair with a big kicker, everything changes. I don’t fear someone catching a bigger card on the next two. That’s because, the higher my top pair is, the less room there is for a higher rank to hit the board. So, my top pair is more likely to hold up. If my kicker is an ace and my top pair is a king, for instance, there’s no room for anyone without a pair to suddenly connect and beat me, barring a straight or flush completion — or really weird misfortunes involving small two pairs or threes-of-a-kind. So, often, with a large top pair and a big kicker, I have the option of checking when I’m first to act — for deception or just to wait and see what happens. It’s a luxury to have that option. I still usually bet, but I have the choice of checking. Assuming there was no more than one raise before the flop, when my top pair is small and I have a small kicker, it’s often dangerous to check, so I almost always bet into that flop.

When in doubt

Of course, there’s more to it than this, and there are arguments I can make and have made for choosing different tactics when you flop top pair, especially in a limit hold ’em game. For instance, heads-up against a consistent bluffer, you may be better off checking and calling on the next three betting rounds, profiting from his error of bluffing too often. But that’s rare.

When in doubt, remember– big pair, big kicker, you can afford to mix up your strategy. Usually bet, but often check. Little pair, little kicker, you should almost always bet.

This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC

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Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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